There are only a couple of crucial things you need to know about “What Just Happened”: It is funny – outrageously so. It’s also paper-cut sharp in skewering virtually every aspect of Hollywood. No one in this movie gets out unscathed.
OK, so comedy is the most subjective genre. No two people laugh at the same things.
But it’s hard for me to believe how scared the distributors were of “What Just Happened” – or the depth of the bad buzz on the film out of Sundance and Cannes.
(There’s also the matter of that question mark at the end of the title. It appears in the title of Art Linson’s memoir, on which the film is based. It doesn’t appear on the movie poster. Declarative? Question? Does it matter?)
The fear about “What Just Happened” supposedly stems from its inside-baseball take on movie-making. Will anyone care about the travails of a movie producer (played by Robert De Niro, called Ben instead of Art), who has a couple of different movies struggling toward production or completion, even as he tries to juggle responsibilities left over from several failed marriages?
Well, gee, does anyone care about “Entourage,” which is as inside as it gets? The counter-argument there, of course, is, “Well, ‘Entourage’ is about hot guys.” But would “Entourage” be a hit if Vincent Chase was a struggling municipal planner? How much would hot guys count for then?
The plot centers on Ben, who has a renegade director (Michael Wincott) finishing a movie that is guaranteed to get audiences walking out of the theater angry – if not early. The picture ends with a cruel shootout in which the film’s hero, Sean Penn (who plays himself in the movie, not the movie-within-a-movie), not only dies – but his faithful dog is brutally gunned down as well.
Change it, demands the studio head (a wonderfully chilly Catherine Keener – so nice to see her playing something other than a fed-up, straying spouse). Recut it – or I’ll pull it out of Cannes.
No problem, Ben says – I’ll get the director to go along with the program. No worries. Lies, lies, lies.
Meanwhile, Ben is also shepherding a new film toward the first day of production, one that will star Bruce Willis as the lead. Just one problem: Willis has his own vision of the role, which includes a Grizzly Adams beard. Besides sprouting the facial thatch, he’s also grown a significant paunch. He’s belligerently adamant about keeping the facial hair, even as studio brass warn Ben that, should Willis show up on the first day of shooting with even a 5 o’clock shadow, they’ll close down production then and there.
No problem, Ben says – we’ll get Bruce to see reason. No worries. Lies, lies, lies.
Ben also happens to be separated from his latest wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), though he’s trying to win her back. He is perpetually late to studio meetings because he’s driving his various children to school (“I’m on the 405 even as we speak,” he lies calmly as he walks to his car). He lives in a nondescript apartment full of still-packed possessions, while only allowed drive-by visits to the lovely Bel Air and Beverly Hills homes he’s bought for the former wives in his life.
Directed by Barry Levinson (who also directed De Niro in “Wag the Dog”), “What Just Happened” has its basis in Linson’s lengthy and checkered career. The fictional Sean Penn film here is a stand-in for “Fight Club,” an in-your-face generational hit that made studio executives’ stomachs turn flips with its outré violence and nihilist philosophy. The fictional Bruce Willis film – and the bad behavior Willis embraces in playing himself – is based on Linson’s experience working with Alec Baldwin on “The Edge,” a dreadful David Mamet-scripted tale in which Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins are stalked in the wilderness by a grizzly bear.
But Levinson is getting at something less score-settling than Linson, whose book reads like it was written by a bemused observer, rather than an active participant (and who takes his share of shots at the notoriously noncommittal De Niro, who apparently has a sense of humor about such things).
Levinson sets up the conflict: art vs. commerce, artist vs. businessman, surface vs. substance, success vs. failure. But he tells the story from the standpoint of the middleman in this transaction – the producer. As played by De Niro, he’s a hilariously slippery agent of expedience, capable of saying whatever needs to be said to keep things moving forward to some semblance of a mutually acceptable goal.
De Niro’s Ben is all about containment: containing the eruptions of others, containing the damage they cause, containing the sweeping decrees of those more powerful than himself. He’s forever the bearer of bad news, couched in palatable terms in order to avoid disruption of the flow of commerce. He’s for the artist’s integrity until he’s against it.
This is the most voluble character De Niro has played in a long time, yet the acting is all in De Niro’s eyes, which flash with a blend of exhaustion, shock, exasperation, amusement and fear, most of which he is rarely allowed to actually express. De Niro seems to practically levitate at times as he dances around the truth to say what needs to be heard, rather than what needs to be said. The truth? It’s a concept; or, as William H. Macy says in David Mamet’s “State and Main,” “It’s not a lie – it’s a gift for fiction.”
The rest of the cast is terrific as well, whether it’s Stanley Tucci as an obsequiously weasely screenwriter or John Turturro as Willis’ agent (with a bad case of stomach cramps from his client – and from going cold-turkey off his anti-anxiety meds), or Willis, for that matter, as a Yosemite Sam-version of himself. Keener has a hauteur that cuts through the bull and pins De Niro to the couch like a butterfly to a piece of cork.
According to one executive I ran into at Sundance after seeing this film last January, most studio brass were badmouthing the film as being too insider-y when, in fact, they were uncomfortable because it hit too close to home. They don’t want you to see how the sausage is made – only to consume the finished product.
In this case, you can do both – and laugh all the way through.